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Well in advance of the 2014 centennial of the beginning of “the war to end all wars,” the First World War is suddenly everywhere in our lives. Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse opened on 2,376 movie screens and has collected six Oscar nominations, while the hugely successful play it’s based on is still packing in the crowds in New York and a second production is being readied to tour the country.
In addition, the must-watch TV soap opera of the last two months, Downton Abbey, has just concluded its season on an unexpected kiss. In seven episodes, its upstairs-downstairs world of forbidden love and dynastic troubles took American viewers from mid-war, 1916, beyond the Armistice, with the venerable Abbey itself turned into a convalescent hospital for wounded troops. Other dramas about the 1914-1918 war are on the way, among them an HBO-BBC miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet of novels and a TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong from an NBC-backed production company.
In truth, there’s nothing new in this. Filmmakers and novelists have long been fascinated by the way the optimistic, sunlit, pre-1914 Europe of emperors in plumed helmets and hussars on parade so quickly turned into a mass slaughterhouse on an unprecedented scale. And there are good reasons to look at the First World War carefully and closely.
After all, it was responsible for the deaths of some nine million soldiers and an even larger number of civilians. It helped ignite the Armenian genocide and the Russian Revolution, left large swaths of Europe in smoldering ruins and remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way—above all, by laying the groundwork for a second and even more deadly, even more global war.
There are good reasons as well for us to be particularly haunted by what happened in those war years to the country that figures in all four of these film and TV productions: Britain. In 1914, that nation was at the apex of glory, the unquestioned global superpower, ruling over the largest empire the world had ever seen. Four and a half years later its national debt had increased tenfold, more than 720,000 British soldiers were dead and hundreds of thousands more seriously wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals.
The toll fell particularly heavily on the educated classes that supplied the young lieutenants and captains who led their troops out of the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire. To give but a single stunning example, of the men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31 percent were killed.
“Swept Away in a Red Blast of Hate”
Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering cavalry charges, muddy trenches and wartime love and loss, the makers of War Horse, Downton Abbey and—I have no doubt—the similar productions we’ll soon be watching largely skip over the greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving out part of the cast of characters of that moment. The First World War was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade and those who thought it absolute madness.